They're ugly as sin, but taste like a little bit of heaven.
Crustaceans are the living embodiment of mom's old maxims: looks aren't everything, beauty is only skin deep, look beneath the surface. With their hard exoskeletons, antennae and scuttling little legs, crustaceans in their natural settling look distinctly primeval and disconcertingly insectlike.
Diners lucky enough to find a lobster, a crab or a shrimp on their plates certainly don't think in these terms, though. They are more likely to agree with culinary scholar Waverly Root that crustaceans are "the noblest foodstuffs of the sea" -- things of beauty, indeed.
"Knowing your crustaceans" doesn't sound like such a hard job. Even the most unsophisticated among us can recognize a lobster and have eaten their fair share of shrimp. And, of course, most Marylanders are well-versed not only in recognizing crabs, but taking them apart with surgical skill.
Once past the "big three," though, the waters get considerably murkier. Just what is a crawfish, anyway? (And is it crawfish or crayfish?) How about a langouste? (And is that the same thing as a langoustine?) Is a prawn just a shrimp, or another beast entirely? We all know that "jumbo shrimp" is an oxymoron, but is "shrimp scampi" a redundancy?
In addition, because of the sheer number of crustaceans -- there are 4,400 species of edible crabs alone! -- some confusion is likely to crop up. Just ask the blue crab-loving Marylander who visits Seattle, where the large Dungeness is the crab of choice, and requests "a dozen crabs."
Following is a guide to a few of the types of crustaceans you might encounter at a seafood market or on a restaurant menu:
*Crab -- Think you know crabs, hon? Well, how many thousand can you identify? Crabs, which range from pea-sized to 12 feet wide, live in all sorts of waters in all sorts of climates on all sorts of continents. Some of the most avid crab-lovers live in Asia, and if you think crabs are getting expensive over here, consider that in China (according to the "China the Beautiful Cookbook"), connoisseurs will pay up to $100 for a 5-inch "Shanghai hairy crab."
Many different types of crab are eaten in the regional United States, four of them commercially important. In the lead is our own blue crab, caught in eastern waters from the Chesapeake to the Gulf of Mexico. Soft-shelled crabs, by the way, are not a separate species, but simply blue crabs that have molted, and have been harvested before the parchmentlike carapace can harden into a new shell.
King crabs, whose lanky legs turn up in some restaurants, ready to be cracked open and dipped in melted butter, are also available frozen. Buyers must beware, though: much of the crab that parades under that label isn't crab at all, but surimi, a paste made of fish and flavorings which has been textured and colored to look like king crab.
Stone crabs, which are something of a cult in Florida and other areas close to the gulf, are among the neatest of crabs to eat, because only the claw is consumed. When fishermen catch stone crabs they break off one claw and throw the crab back into the water, where it will grow a replacement. The season for fresh stone crab claws is short (December to February), says Bill Reynolds, manager of Fisherman's Wharf wholesale and retail seafood market on Belair Road, but the claws are available frozen at some local groceries and fish markets.
Greenish Dungeness crabs somewhat resemble their blue cousins, but are much larger; they average 1 1/2 to 3 pounds each. Many Dungeness crabs which find their way to the East are frozen, but fresh ones can be obtained on occasion; according to Mr. Reynolds, customers desperately seeking Dungeness can often get them by placing an order three to five days in advance.
Bill Devine, owner of Faidley's Seafood in Lexington Market, has carried Dungeness crabs, and other outre seafood from faraway places, but finds it not worth the trouble, in view of the limited demand. "When I was young and naive I used to order everything, and then I threw out more than I sold." He advocates a more regional approach to seafood: "We should eat what the good Lord gave us," he says tartly.
*Crawfish -- Before refrigeration, people who lived inland never got the chance to taste many crustaceans, because they spoil so quickly. But even those who had never tasted lobster or
shrimp were often familiar with the crawfish, a freshwater crustacean which resembles a miniature lobster only a few inches long.
Crawfish are found in streams, ponds and ditches on every continent except Africa, and are relished in most. They are particularly popular among the French. The unofficial capital of world crawfish eating is Nantua; a dish prepared a la Nantua is garnished with crawfish or napped with crawfish sauce. The French mania for "ecrevisses" peaked in the mid- to late 19th century, when the formerly cheap shellfish became a costly (and, supposedly, aphrodisiac) delicacy for wealthy epicures. According to Waverly Root, an invitation to a meal of crawfish was the equivalent of a later age's "Come up and see my etchings."
While American crawfish (or crayfish) can be found deep into the Midwest, they are most often associated with the bayou country of Louisiana, where they are harvested in winter and spring. The tails are eaten, and sometimes, if the beast is big enough, the claws. The Cajuns have myriad ways of cooking "crawdads" or "mudbugs," including steaming them with spices, deep-frying them and making a spicy etouffee. Maryland diners may have first sampled them in Cajun/Creole restaurants, but home cooks can find them both fresh and frozen. Mr. Reynolds of Fisherman's Wharf flies his in from Louisiana, but several independent operators have begun to farm-raise crawfish locally.
*Lobster -- The American lobster, homarus americanus, is considerably more American than apple pie. New England settlers in the 17th century reported finding lobsters up to 6 feet long. Ironically, they were not prized in those early years, but were considered fit only for peasants. Or perhaps the Puritans just thought something so rich-tasting couldn't possibly be good for the soul.
There are other lobsters in Atlantic waters, such as the European lobsters which thrive off the coast of Brittany, Britain and Scandinavia. Other parts of the world, even warm southern waters, have creatures they call lobsters, too, although they are different crustaceans. The most popular of these in the United States is the spiny, or rock, lobster, source of the broiled lobster tails on restaurant menus.
When choosing a lobster to cook yourself, pick a lively one that will wriggle and flap when you turn it over. The feistier they are, the more recently they were caught. Some gourmets prefer female lobsters, which are often heavier and tastier than the males, and contain the reproductive system and eggs ("coral"). When dismantling a lobster at the table, don't neglect this delicacy, or the greenish liver, the tomally, whose rich intense flavor should conquer any squeamishness.
Lobsters taste best when they are eaten within sight of the sea, and when they perish in the same element in which they lived. Maryland gardeners know that sweet corn tastes best if you pick it and immediately put it into an already-boiling pot; lobsters work the same way. They begin to die and lose flavor the moment they are taken from the water, so if they can be popped right from the lobster pot into the kitchen pot they provide the most taste thrills. That's why you'll get a sweeter lobster from a no-frills little "lobster pound" on the Maine coast than from the priciest restaurant in New York.
*Spiny (or rock) lobster -- The palinurus vulgaris lacks the imposing claws of the homarus, but it manages to get along without them; its enemies are suitably intimidated by its spiky carapace and horror-movie appearance, and dedicated eaters are mollified by the wealth of delicious meat in its broad tail.
Rock lobsters are found in warmer waters than true lobsters, and travelers may have tasted them fresh while visiting the &r; Mediterranean, the Caribbean or even the gulf states. But even areas rich in rock lobsters do not fish enough of them to provide for the rest of us.
"I've never seen them shipped whole, and I've been in this business 35 years!" says Bill Devine of Faidley's, who adds that when customers come in asking for them, he knows they've just returned from a vacation in Florida or the Bahamas.
If you manage to get hold of a fresh one, it should be cooked alive, and can be used in any recipe for which you'd use a regular lobster. If not, you'll just have to make do with frozen tails from South Africa, which, according to those in the know, just can't compare to the fresh item.
In France, the spiny lobster is known as the langouste (which means locust, in reference to the beast's buglike looks). Don't confuse it with the langoustine, though, a different crustacean altogether (see "scampi," below.)
*Scampi -- Just what is scampi anyway? "Scampi in the parlance of the industry has always been a dish with shrimp," says Bill Devine of Faidley's. Many restaurateurs and diners, as well as fishmongers, know scampi best as a dish made with garlic, butter or oil and white wine, usually featuring shrimp but occasionally made with another main ingredient. (Hence "veal scampi.")
TC Purists know, however, that the scampi is actually a small lobsterlike crustacean with a tasty tail. Proud Italians insist that a true scampo (scampi is the plural) must be caught in Adriatic waters. But the creature, officially known as nephrops norvegicus, is found in other places and under other names, including the Dublin Bay prawn, the Norway lobster and the langoustine.
The langostino, though, is something else again. When asked about the discrepancy, Roy Martin, vice president for science and technology at the National Fisheries Institute in Arlington, Va., explained that according to the standards of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the langostino (pleoticus muelleri) is classified as a prawn (see "shrimp," below).
This confusion and lack of first-hand experience with the crustacean help fuel the American perception that scampi is nothing more than "a dish with shrimp." So if you spot it on the menu of an American restaurant, expect the familiar garlic-butter sauce, and expect that your scampi won't be scampi at all -- when menus advertise shrimp scampi, they're telling the truth.
*Shrimp -- From tiny canned cocktail shrimp to specimens large enough to stuff with crab imperial, shrimp are an indelible part of the American Way of Eating. But it hasn't always been this way. Although shrimp are today the most popular of crustaceans -- crabs are No. 2, lobsters No. 3 -- they have been widely eaten only since refrigeration was perfected. (Many are now flash-frozen aboard the ship which caught them.) Previously, because of their extreme perishability, there was little commercial shrimp fishing, and they were eaten only in coastal areas.
These days, half a billion pounds of shrimp are eaten in the United States alone, but they are relished all over the world, from Scandinavia (where open-face shrimp sandwiches are sold by street vendors) to Japan (where epicures eat them alive and still wiggling).
There are thousands of edible species, some of which are called shrimp and some prawns. Prawns are, as a rule, larger than shrimp, but the two words are often used interchangeably, Roy Martin says.
One of the tastiest crustaceans in this class is the large prawn called the langostino. Frozen langostino tails, which look like rock lobster tails but are only about as long as a man's thumb, are sold in the United States, but don't have the following they do in the Mediterranean. While a few customers may ask for them from time to time, Mr. Devine says, they aren't enough in demand to be continually in stock. "It's not a very popular thing around here," agrees Mr. Reynolds of Fisherman's Wharf. "Mainly I deal with the rock lobster tails. I don't even mess with the little langostinos."
For the best flavor, shrimp should be "deveined," to rid them of what is not actually a vein, but the animal's intestinal tract. Leaving the vein in is not unsafe, but can sometimes make the shrimp taste bitter.